New Perspectives for Rebuilding Union Power

frontcover-f_medium-2fb8dd7e1e725035417e691ea490dc17On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War

By Kim Moody (Haymarket Books, Chicago 2017)


Reviewed by Dougal McNeill


Is there a revival of working-class confidence happening in Aotearoa? The PPTA and NZEI are going into bargaining with big pay claims (e.g. 16 percent over two years for primary teachers) and health workers went on strike for the first time in decades. The NZEI went on strike in winter, and will have rolling strikes in term four. So far this year there has been action by bus drivers, at Event Cinemas, Wendys, Auckland trains, Lyttleton port, Burger King, Blue Star Group printers and Silver Fern Farms. Wellington bus drivers begin an indefinite strike in late October. Their brothers and sisters in Auckland will follow.


This revival takes place, however, in a context of ongoing crisis for our movement. Membership has fallen massively. In 1985 almost half of the workforce was in unions but, by the 2010s, less than 9% of those in the private sector are members. We lost some 320,000 members through the 1990s, as the Employment Contracts Act made it difficult to organise and easier for bosses to attack. Workers’ confidence to fight has slipped. There were 381,710 days ‘lost’ to strikes in 1988; by 2014 that number had slumped to just 1,448. The benefits of union membership are concentrated in the public sector, and union members are older than the working population generally.


What explains this decline? Many commentators argue that the nature of work has changed over the last thirty years, making union power less relevant. We have seen the rise of a “precariat”, Guy Standing claims, drifting in insecure jobs with little to gain from unionism. Others look for new ways of building – the ‘organising model’ – that use community support and savvy media campaigning to work around our workplace weaknesses. Helen Kelly pioneered imaginative campaigning like this, and the Living Wage movement has won victories with similar approaches. There’s much here to support, but it still avoids, rather than confronts, the key question: without union power, the power of the strike, what future will our movement have?

[Read more…]

The Expropriators are Expropriated

Tom O'Lincoln‘The Expropriators are Expropriated’ and other writings on Marxism’

By Tom O’Lincoln (Melbourne: Interventions Inc).

Reviewed by Shomi Yoon

Tom O’Lincoln’s The Expropriators are Expropriated is a collection of talks and essays from his political career in socialist organisations in Australia from the early 1980s. Tom’s writing is immensely readable and easy to understand. In this collection, he delivers complex Marxist theory in accessible presentations. Topics range from dialectics, theories of economic crises, the trade unions, and more.

The pieces collected here are insightful, accessible and reflective. Most can be read in one-sitting, so it’s perfect introductory reading. For those wanting to find out more, each chapter contains detailed endnotes and there is a bibliography detailing Tom’s other writing.

Tom’s chapter on ‘Dialectics: the power of negative thinking’ is refreshingly clear: “Dialectics is built up into a big mystical affair, an impressive array of mumbo jumbo to intimidate people. And so it’s no wonder people sometimes come up and ask me: just what the hell is dialectics?” Tom sketches the link between Hegel and Marx’s understanding of the dialectic and draws out four important principles. The idea that everything is in constant flux; that we’re not bound by formal logic; that everything gives rise to its opposite; and that gradual quantitative change can at certain moments lead to qualitative change. He ends the chapter quoting Lenin linking the relevance of dialectics with revolutionary practice. [Read more…]

A Rebel’s guide to Eleanor Marx

A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor MarxA Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx, by Siobhan Brown

Reviewed by Gowan James Ditchburn

“Eleanor Marx saw an alternative: a class that organised across borders, just as the rich do. She was a champion of the oppressed who linked the everyday struggles to a big vision. Our task remains the same.” These are the concluding lines of Siobhan Brown’s short book on Eleanor Marx, and for those of us that fight for a better world they hold true, our task remains the same.

Brown makes it clear that the focus of this book is not the personal life of Eleanor Marx, the focus of so many biographies which overlook the importance of her legacy. This book shines a spotlight on Eleanor’s work at the centre of a powerful trade union movement and her struggle for the rights of the oppressed. This it does amazingly well. Despite the fact the book is only 55 pages long and can fit in your pocket, Brown is able to examine the political context as well as the actions of Eleanor herself. This all important context is key to understanding the contributions of Eleanor Marx to the various struggles examined in the book and for understanding her legacy. [Read more…]

Review: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)

Raising_Expectations_CMYK-ea2bdfd656192ed171c5e1190134e229Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement

by Jane McAlevey,

Verso, 2014.

Reviewed by Alastair Reith

Workers today, in more cases than not, bear passive witness to a world where we have less power and a smaller share of society’s wealth than in generations. It’s rare for us to see any substantial challenge to this take place, and rarer still for us to become more than witnesses.

In Raising Hell and Raising Expectations Jane McAlevey gives a no holds barred account of her years as a full time organiser in the American trade union movement. Her account of a health care workers insurgency in Nevada, USA, is at times inspiring, at others hilarious, and at still others deeply disturbing. As memoirs go it’s not primarily focused on getting to know her as a person, but rather on telling the story of how she came to be where she did; struggling to rebuild a movement for a more just and equal world and facing obstacles to this from employers, politicians and even from other trade unionists. [Read more…]

Love’s Labour’s Lost

LLLLove’s Labour’s Lost

Directed by Ania Upstill

The Dell, Wellington Botanic Gardens until 27 February. Tickets here.

Reviewed by Romany Tasker-Poland

The scene is set for a pitched battle at Ania Upstill’s Summer Shakespeare production of Loves’ Labours Lost. We sit along a thrust stage, or rather lawn. At one end sits the stuffy pomp of the Court of Navarre: columns, pedestals and balustrades shaped like closed books. The gentlemen of Navarre have sworn themselves to a period of celibacy, fasting and study, but find themselves besieged by a band of marauding women; the glamorous and witty Princess of France and her entourage set up camp in the opposing corner, in a tent shaped like an upturned flower.

[Read more…]

When Black Workers Organized Against Jim Crow

hammer and hoeHammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression by Robin Kelley.

Reviewed by Martin Gregory


A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this wonderful classic work of workers’ history was published last year. Robin Kelley has magnificently brought to light the little known struggles of communist party-supporting workers and sharecroppers, the majority of whom were black, under ferocious conditions of repression in Alabama, USA. This chronicle takes place against the background of the 1930’s depression, Communist Party politics and the segregationist regime in the Deep South where black resistance ran the risk of lynchings. Communist advocates of “social equality” were liable to beatings, arrests and jail-time.

It was not until 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, when the American Communist Party (CP) attempted to organise in the south. The Party sent a couple of organisers to Birmingham, Alabama, an industrial city on the fringe of the cotton-growing black belt. After their first public meeting the home of one of the Communists’ speakers was fire-bombed. [Read more…]

Ruth, Roger, and Me

Ruth Roger and ME

Ruth Roger and Me, by Andrew Dean

Published by Bridget Williams Books

Reviewed by Kevin Hodder


Ruth, Roger and Me was a bit of a left field media sensation when it came out earlier this year. Andrew Dean, Rhodes scholar at Oxford, is an unlikely voice for the struggling youth of 2015. However, his reflections on the challenges faced by young people today, on growing up in Christchurch and Ashburton, and the impact of the neoliberal policies typified by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson are poignant and direct. [Read more…]

Nice Work if You Can Get It

don franks nice work

Nice Work if You Can Get It; Notes from a Musician’s Diary

By Don Franks (Steele Roberts, $19.99)


Reviewed by Shomi Yoon


If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall of the social functions of the rich and powerful but not be tainted by that experience, then Don Frank’s Notes are  whimsical retellings of being that musician. From playing for the Young Nats, to Piggy Muldoon’s birthday party at a high class Italian restaurant, even to the Police Association, Don has played for the lot. [Read more…]

Call Mr Robeson


Call Mr Robeson

The Moorings, 31 Glenbervie Terrace, Wellington

Until 1st March.

Tickets $18/$14 0800 BUY TIX

Reviewed by Daniel Simpson Beck.

Call Mr. Robeson is written and performed by Tayo Aluko. Through monologue and song, he brings to life the memory of a man who the American ruling class would rather we forgot.

Paul Robeson, born in New Jersey, USA in 1898, was a man who excelled in many different areas; athletics, law, singing, acting and languages to name but a few. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University and was one of only two black students thoughout his four years there. He excelled in his studies and became one of the best footballers of the time. But it was singing and acting, in movies such as Show Boat in 1936, that brought him worldwide fame. He was one of the world’s leading concert singers in the 1930s and 1940s. He starred in Othello in what became and remains the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. So why were his name and achievements omitted from countless books about the history of American musicians and actors? In Call Mr. Robeson we learn that it was his passion for politics that lead the ruling elite to try and obliterate him from the history books. [Read more…]



POATA: SEEING BEYOND THE HORIZON By Tama Te Kapua Poata; edited by Prue Poata (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2012)

Reviewed by Shomi Yoon

Tama Te Kapua Poata [Ngāti Porou; 1936 – 2005] was born in Tokomaru Bay, on the East Coast. He represents the generation of Māori who migrated into the cities, and continued on to become leaders and fighters in the vanguard of the working class. He was part of all the key struggles of the ‘Māori renaissance’ of the 60s and 70s. He saw the struggle for socialism as synonymous with the struggle for Māori sovereignty.

Poata’s memoir is filled with anecdotes, poems, stories, photos, old newsletters from the struggle and campaigns that he was involved in and led over three decades. As a communist, he was on the front lines of and often the face of struggles that shaped New Zealand from the industrial struggles of the 60s – 70s, to anti-Vietnam war protests, to the Land March of 1975, to antiapartheid protests against the Springbok tour in 1981, and more.  So prominent was his activism that it even caught the eye of former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon who accused him of being New Zealand’s “leading Māori communist”. Poata had actually been expelled from the Communist Party close to a decade earlier.

This memoir is a must read. Behind its conversational tone is a goldmine of insights and experiences, and shows how quickly ideas and assumptions can change in a time of social upheaval and class struggle. There are countless examples of how seemingly fixed ideas like racism can be overcome through the course of the struggle. [Read more…]